These days digital technology is everywhere, revolutionising all sectors – services, manufacturing, education and even agriculture. There is still however one relative blank spot, which digital technology is only now starting to infiltrate: the democratic process.
Since Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign back in 2008, the role of the Internet has changed radically and the social networks have played a crucial role in the latest political campaigns in the United States, the UK and Italy. Some people blame the Web for the proliferation of extreme ideas and politicians’ loss of credibility, but the Internet, as used by CivicTech organisations, could actually come to the aid of democracy.
A crucial moment in the political history of the US and France
We might say that this new digital paradigm has already had a profound ‘political’ impact if we were to take the original, etymological sense of the word politics (from the Greek word for city – polis – it means ‘the affairs of the city’, or the state). Digital technology has certainly begun to transform our towns and cities. Information apps, connected networks, smart transport, power grid management drawing on digital technology and the data it provides – the Smart City is no longer a crazy dream or a mere hope. It is very real and is taking shape in front of our eyes, in Lyon and Lille, in Barcelona, Stockholm and Boston.
There is one area that could also be radically altered by this digital surge: national politics. Now that the Americans have just elected a new president after two Obama terms, and French people are about to go to the polls at a critical moment in their economic and social history, could digital technology perhaps come to their aid?
In 2015, the Miami, Florida-based non-profit organisation Knight Foundation published an in-depth report analysing the issues around the emerging CivicTech landscape, which includes all the technologies that enable citizens to express themselves and engage in dialogue with their government in a more transparent, more accessible and therefore more democratic way. The report classifies the potential improvements generated by technologies being applied to the political machine into two major categories, which it calls ‘innovation clusters’: open government and community action. The first category comprises solutions such as data access and transparency, visualisation and mapping, and data utility, right up to the joint drafting of laws and government decisions. So we can see that we still have a long way to go!
Capable of the best…and the worst
So the question is much wider: is digital going to revolutionise – not to say ‘uberise’ – the whole way our political system works? Though some would dispute that the term ‘uberisation’ can be reasonably applied to the world of politics, it cannot be denied that digital is gradually changing our relationship with democracy. For example, the online petition site change.org (slogan: ‘The power of your voice’) last year passed the 100 million user mark. And we all know how digital technology amplifies opinions. The Internet channels all types of engagement, all passions… and all excesses. Extremists of all stripes proliferate there thanks to the freedom of the online world, which is very difficult to monitor. The Internet is a magnifier of opinions, a multiplier. The principle of ‘one man one vote’ hardly applies here. It is those who shout the loudest that get the widest hearing.
The second category is more about citizen engagement, with the development of citizen networks, local community actions and crowdsourcing of information (mirroring its financial counterpart, crowdfunding). The scope is wide, and even if only a small number of the solutions put forward were implemented, that would represent a major step forward.
Donald Trump’s attacks on his rival Hillary Clinton on Twitter during the electoral campaign
For more than ten years now, digital technology has been instrumental in allowing public opinion (a notion that first appeared in France towards the end of the ‘Ancien Regime’ that was swept away by the French Revolution) to crystallise, based on the emergence of a collective consciousness. The Internet and digital technology are powerful drivers for people’s empowerment, i.e. an increasing awareness of the power of the crowd and above all people’s ability to influence the course of events.
This is the subject of a book written (in French) by Dominique Piotet and Francis Pisani, entitled ‘The Alchemy of Multitude: How the Web Is Changing the World’. In the political arena that we are now discussing, this kind of empowerment can be highly destructive. The result of the US elections and the Brexit referendum are very telling examples of how hard it is nowadays for the politicos, the media and polling organisations to anticipate, understand and influence public opinion. Empowerment has overridden the rather vague notion of public opinion, leaving the way open to particular currents and popular movements that come into being and gather force on the Web, propelled by particular interests which may be common to a number of people for an instant in time, before disappearing or re-mixing.
So where are we, exactly?
It is clear that digital technology has begun to weave its web in the political sphere.
City mayors already use the power of the social networks and specific apps such as Paris-based Fluicity to create closer links with citizens and enable them to influence local political decisions, for instance the budget consultation process held by Paris City Hall. Back in 2007, however, the then Minister for the Regions, Ségolène Royal, had very little success with her attempt to build a ‘participatory democracy’ movement at national level in support of her presidential election campaign.
But this is just the beginning. For the moment, effective use of the web in the political arena is basically the preserve of influencers who are ever-present on Twitter – is that not so, President Trump? – Facebook and SnapChat. Each candidate has their own strategy for going on to the web to pick up voters which may prove fairly effective or less so, well-structured or not, and with or without the help of Los Angeles-based community organising software platform Nation Builder. This company, which specialises in electoral mapping, has been in the news recently. Its all-in-one solution enables users to manage simultaneously a website, campaign contributions and a contact database, all by themselves. It worked successfully for Barack Obama’s two victorious campaigns and is today working with French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron’s campaign – basically optimising the world’s oldest campaign strategy: door-to-door canvassing. But this is really just about political publicity or, at best, electoral strategy. Just as brands market themselves on the Internet, this is basically web marketing applied to elections.
However, we must acknowledge that the rise of CivicTech is bringing two huge benefits. The first is that young people are starting to re-engage. Abstention rates in western elections are often close to 30%, sometimes even higher, but this type of digital communication appeals to the Millennial generation, as it is very much in line with the way they do things, and also makes them feel that their opinions count. This no doubt encourages them to re-engage with the public debate.
Secondly, startups such as independent European citizen initiative Make.org are working to bring new ideas into the public debate by crowdsourcing and voting on proposals, the approach being that everyone is free to put forward an idea, which can be taken forward if it wins the support of a wide audience. This system has the advantage of breathing life into ideas that are based on simple good sense, enabling politicians, charity workers or company bosses to take them up and turn them into a more concrete programme.
If we want digital technology to breathe new life into politics and therefore into our democracy, we need to find the right balance, i.e. making people central to the system and encouraging debate. It is not the role of CivicTech organisations to promote individualism but to restore primacy to the community and to the interplay of ideas. CivicTech organisations have not yet carved out a leading role for themselves in public discourse, but we must recognise that their existence and the media coverage they stimulate (witness the number of articles written about laprimaire.org, a French website organising its own ‘citizen election’) are indicators of a revival in public debate. Digital technology is there to serve people, including helping them to make the choices that will govern their lives. The national political arena should not be the last area to benefit from the digital revolution.